Spectacular Wildlife Photography Can Be Done Ethically Nearly Anywhere: But Stay Educated

January 24, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Whether your wildlife photography venue of choice is a vast and remote natural area, your backyard, a zoo, a wildlife sanctuary, or a rehabilitation center, you can ethically capture stunning wildlife photos in any of these settings. Yes, the right equipment and skill is needed… and that’s for another post.  


Photographers are not all like-minded; some are opposed to photographing captive wildlife and actively work to devalue this type of wildlife photography.  Other photographers are unopposed and keep ethics in the forefront when photographing captive wildlife. This is a sometimes thorny topic. Captive wildlife aren't domesticated. Domestication takes thousands of years and special circumstances.


I photograph wildlife at any opportunity I get, in any setting I can, including from my office window, and always with ethics in the forefront. This means I travel to remote and not-so-remote locations to shoot wildlife in unconfined, or non-captive settings, like wildlife refuges, national parks, and other natural areas. I also photograph in my backyard (and front yard!), and I photograph wildlife in confined, or “captive settings”, including wildlife in the care of licensed rehabilitators, conservationists, and educators.


Before going further, let me address a “words matter” issue.  In my experience, the term “captive wildlife” is a negative label that conjures up images of chained, neglected, isolated, and inhumanely treated wildlife. Unfortunately, this can and does happen, but this is far from the experience and reality of many captive wildlife, including those cared for in accredited and licensed zoos, rehabilitation centers, sanctuaries, and wildlife parks.  Balance and clarity are essential in the words we use to label wildlife that are under temporary or long-term care of humans.  I don’t use the “captive wildlife” label, but have upgraded and replaced this term with “wildlife in the care of humans”.


My interest and study in wildlife rehabilitation first led me to photograph wildlife that were temporarily or long-term in the care of licensed rehabilitators. Photographing wild animals in the care of humans comes with many of the same major challenges as photographing wildlife that are not, including dealing with lighting conditions, animal movement, composing a meaningful shot of your wildlife subject, and dealing with the people factor – crowds, and nearby people, with large cameras and/or cellphones trying to get the same perfect shot.


It’s critical that photographers who are knowledgeable about wildlife in human care settings, like rehabilitation centers, zoos, and sanctuaries, underscore and debunk myths about photographing this wildlife. First, wildlife in the care of humans are wild animals. Second, wildlife in the care of humans are wild animals. And third, wildlife in the care of humans are wild animals. Detect a theme here?  Wildlife in the care of humans do not become “unwild” because of captivity. If they did, zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, rehabilitators, and facilities like these, could forgo cages, fences, and all the protective clothing and protocols that must be used when humans handle nearly any wild animal. Wild animals may become habituated to humans in captivity. However, there are many tragic examples of human caretakers being attacked, injured, and even killed by wild animals in long-term captivity.


I love being outdoors and seeing wildlife in their natural habitat. However, my photographs of wildlife in the care of humans often engage more conversations, and are among the most powerful images I take, and the most sought after. They showcase details and incredible facets of wildlife that many never have an opportunity to experience or enjoy. My images of wildlife in the care of licensed wildlife rehabilitators, conservationists, and educators have provided my clients and customers with unique and powerful connections to wildlife that are treasured and shared. Because I don’t shy away from, or devalue the work of photographing wildlife in the care of humans, I can help promote the incredibly important work of wildlife professionals who rescue, save, protect and educate us about wildlife.


With that said, there can also be situations where animals in the care of humans are not treated humanely and this is the “stay educated” part. Ethical photographers, whether hobbyist or professional MUST do their homework in picking facilities and organizations that treat animals humanely. The welfare of animals is always more important than a photographer’s interests. If you have an opportunity to photograph wildlife in zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, rehabilitation centers, wildlife parks, and the like, only visit those that have the proper licensing and accreditations for the type of wildlife work they do. If you don’t know the proper licensing and accreditations, a first easy step is to directly ask the facility/organization. Reputable and licensed organizations – and there are many – will be happy to tell you about their permits, licenses and accreditations.


You can also easily conduct on-line research. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has a rigorous accreditation process. Its scientifically based and publicly available standards examine the zoo or aquarium’s entire operation, including animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, education, guest services, physical facilities, safety, staffing, finance, and governing body. According to AZA, “fewer than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited.”  This underscores why it’s important that hobbyist or professional photographers do their homework when photographing zoo wildlife. Visit AZA’s  list of accredited zoos and aquariums to see if an institution is AZA-accredited.


Wildlife rehabilitators or wildlife parks and sanctuaries sometimes offer photo opportunities with their non-releasable wildlife for fundraising events. These events are often widely attended by individuals, families, and hobbyist and professional photographers. Do your homework and attend events and opportunities sponsored by licensed organizations. The Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association maintains a list of permitted rehabilitators by state. The International Council of Wildlife Rehabilitation also has a registry of certified wildlife rehabilitators, and the Humane Society has a list of wildlife rehabilitators by state as well.


There have been more than a few articles written on ethics in wildlife photography. Search Google or your favorite web browser. Many of the wildlife photography ethics guidelines I’ve reviewed have helpful practices that I encourage others to read and work into your photography practice, as aligned with your personal values and experience. At the heart of ethical thinking is a concern about something or someone other than ourselves and our own desires and self-interest. Whether you’re a professional or hobbyist photographer, this is a great place to start your ethics review of your photography practice.


A few of the special images I took of wildlife in the care of licensed, compassionate wildlife rehabilitators follow.




A New StartA New Start Eye Contact - Barn OwlEye Contact - Barn Owl








No comments posted.